Muslims gather in Mecca during the 2018 Hajj.

As one of the five pillars of Islam, the annual pilgrimage made to the holy city of Mecca by millions of Muslims each year is crucial. Known as the Hajj, this journey—taking place July 28 through August 2 this year—is a requirement for every physically and financially able Muslim; it’s a trip many look forward to their entire lives.

Around 2 million pilgrims attended last year’s Hajj. Mecca was expecting a record high of nearly 3 million people this year. But, due to the threat of COVID-19, only 1,000 pilgrims could make it into the city that’s the birthplace of the prophet Muhammed. Because of the growing numbers of cases both inside Saudi Arabia and across the globe, the government officials in charge of organizing the pilgrimage prohibited any international travelers from attending.

Even those lucky 1,000 are experiencing the Hajj in a way never seen before in its nearly 15-centuries of history. Pilgrims are expected to social distance; use personal prayer rugs; and are banned from drinking directly from the holy Zamzam well or coming into contact with the Black Stone of Mecca, believed to absorb the sins of those who touch or kiss it—all traditions that lie at the heart of the Hajj experience.

One Houstonian, Emran El-Badawi, University of Houston’s Middle Eastern Studies program director, had been predicting the cancellation of this year’s international Hajj pilgrimage for a while now. Although he shares the same heavy heart many are experiencing across the globe, he believes this was this best choice for everyone.

“Saudi Arabia made an announcement to this effect well over a month ago, and Muslims worldwide were disappointed, but understanding,” says El-Badawi. “The Kingdom’s Ministry of Pilgrimage is taking all the necessary measures to ensure the safe passage of just a few thousand local pilgrims this year. They did the right thing.”

In fact, El-Badawi has found an eye-opening silver lining in Saudi Arabia’s decision: “While this cancellation is unprecedented and the images of the empty mosque complex are shocking, as a researcher myself I have found the nearly exponential growth of pilgrims each year unsustainable, and the opulent urban sprawl of the city of Mecca problematic,” says El-Badawi. “The COVID disruption is resurfacing questions about public health, and fatal accidents during the pilgrimage in recent years, all tied to its massive scale.”

On top of offering officials a year to reflect on how this rapidly increasing pilgrimage may need to adjust procedures to prevent hazards that’ll come with an unviable amount of visitors, El-Badawi also believes seeing how powerful religious practices and celebrations can be from home could prove just how resilient the religion of Islam truly is; despite the international cancellation of such a cherished tradition.

Celebrating at home is something Muslims across the world have had to get used to. Earlier this year, the Islamic Society of Greater Houston had to cancel its planned thousands-strong prayer at NRG to mark Eid al-fitr, the end of Ramadan. Asia Society Texas produced two weeks-worth of virtual programming to celebrate the holiday.

But in the middle of the Hajj week—July 30–31—comes another of Islam’s holiest days July: Eid al-Adha, which remembers Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God. It’s a day where many come together with friends and family, but like Saudi Arabia, many local Houston mosques have had to closed their doors ensure their community’s safety during the pandemic.

For the chairman of Houston’s Islamic Arts Society, Khawaja Azimuddin, this year’s celebration has been one like no other. While the IAS is used to holding local events in honor of Eid Al-Adha, Azimuddin has decided cancelling events and congregational Eid Prayers is the best decision.

Though celebrating with a small group of immediate family at home is an adjustment for Azimuddin, he’s reminded why prioritizing public health in our community is more important now than ever each day when he heads into work as a general and colon-rectal surgeon. “Being a health care provider myself, I am aware of the stress that has been placed on our healthcare system,” says Azimuddin. “We are taking this seriously.”

Despite their lack of in-person events, many of IAS's programs are still connecting Houston’s Muslim community virtually. Keep an eye out on IAS’s website for future virtual classes and events, or listen to their podcast The Sacred Palette on Spotify to hear intriguing conversations amongst Muslim artists.

“In the end,” says El-Badawi, “Islam is an incredibly portable religion. And I have every confidence that this crisis will be surmounted successfully, and Muslims in Houston and abroad will find their footing alongside Christians, Jews, and others in the days to come.” 

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